US Open crowns record-breaking Rafael Nadal
One man in Flushing Meadows must have sent a small prayer up to the heavens on Sunday night. They obligingly opened, and that forced the postponement of the men’s US open final to a third Monday.
Only 20 hours before, Novak Djokovic had won what he described as one of the most memorable matches of his career. At the fourth attempt in consecutive years, he beat his US Open bÃƒÂªte noir, Roger Federer, in a pulsating three-and-three-quarter hours of gripping, blood-on-the-court tennis. He craved every minute of recovery time he could squeeze from the inclement weather.
For waiting with him in the locker room -and, one might imagine, pacing restlessly -was Rafael Nadal, who had dropped not a set on his way to this meeting.
For Nadal, this title -his first in New York -would anoint him the seventh man to complete a career Grand Slam. Only two men had done it younger: Don Budge in 1938 and Rod Laver in 1962.
Nadal had dispatched Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets in just two-and-a-quarter hours before Djokovic even got on court. But the odds that had favoured Nadal -his easier progress, his earlier and shorter semi, the dominant player of 2010 -were tempered by the rain. Djokovic had time: to adjust to his victory over Federer, to regain his equanimity, and to restore his body.
The two men had an intense history. This was their 22nd meeting in four-and-a-half years, and Nadal held a 14-7 advantage. Djokovic, though, had won their last three meetings, and all of his seven wins had been on hard courts.
So talk that had been of Nadal’s tennis -his movement, speed, improved serve, desire to win -was intercut by talk of Djokovic’s near-faultless ground strokes, his confidence and touch at the net, his composure and focus.
Both had hit their best form at the right time, were injury-free, hungry. The final was, in fact, what every final should be: a fight between the best.
With the score poised at 4-4, 30-30 in the second set, the weather took control again as a rain-storm hit Flushing Meadows. The set was already the same length as the first, the points shared equally: 57 each.
Almost two hours later, play resumed, and Djokovic rose to the challenge of resuming his service mid-game. It was a gutsy hold after a couple of deuce scares.
The first two points of game 10 had the crowd on their feet: one a running forehand down the line from Nadal, the other a similar shot from the Djokovic backhand. Both men had returned into the cool evening with fire in their bellies, and the standard of play took off. Passing shot, cross-court running forehands, delicate drops, and high smashes, and the second set was still not decided.
After two hours, however, it was. Djokovic applied the pressure deep into Nadal’s court, powered his shots to alternating corners, and forced some errors from Nadal. It brought a break of serve and the set, 7-5.
Djokovic’s problem, though, was that Nadal had already won the first set. And Nadal had a 106-1 record of winning such matches. Sure enough, no matter that Djokovic played some of his best tennis of the year, stayed focused, gave not an inch, Nadal was an immovable object.
The manner in which Nadal finished off the bombardment only served to gild his performance. Not content with playing an entire match of accurate, intense, and athletic baseline tennis, Nadal reached match point with a bouquet of drop shot pick-ups, a volley and -how appropriate -his distinctive looping forehand. He left it to the bedazzled Djokovic to place his head on the block with a wide forehand.
An ecstatic New York roared its pleasure for surely one of their most gladiatorial of champions. The 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 win ensured Nadal’s name will forever appear on every Grand Slam trophy.
Those rain-storms that fell like a prayer from heaven for Djokovic were not enough to quench Nadal, but they were enough to ensure this was one of the highest quality US finals of the Open era.
At the end of March -fewer than six months back -Nadal was ranked fourth in the world with 6,800 points. He now stands almost 5,000 points clear of Djokovic at the top and is guaranteed to be No. 1 until Monte Carlo next spring without lifting a finger.
He will be favourite to take the WTF title in London. If he can go on to win the Australian title, he would be that very rare beast: a man who has held all four Slam titles at the same time.
Nadal’s body looks in better shape than at any time since his first Roland Garros title. His game is multifaceted, his tenacity unquestioned, his capacity for evolution still clear. He barely attacked the net at all against Djokovic, yet his speed, serve, and volley skills make this a natural play should he seek more solutions.
With three Slam titles in the space of four months, the question is not about whether Nadal’s knees will see him through another season but how anyone else can beat this epitome of determination.
And to top it all, no-one has a bad word to say about him. Now that’s class.